Time is up for tanks

The modern battlefield may mean the tank's day is done - and there are juicier contracts for defence contractors to target

The Challenger 2 main battle tank
The Challenger 2 main battle tank

A predictable storm of outrage followed reports the forthcoming defence review could see the UK military’s fleet of 227 Challenger 2 main battle tanks and 388 Warrior armoured fighting vehicles mothballed.

While no Defence Secretary wants to go down in history as the one who oversaw the British Army losing its heavy tanks, it’s almost inevitable that one will eventually do so. 

The physical presence of a 62-tonne Challenger may dominate the battlefield but in truth, questions about their role in the type of modern warfare the British military is likely to take part in have grown in recent years.

Weapons needed to kill a once all but impregnable tank are becoming smaller, lighter and cheaper, meaning armies no longer need a tank to fight a tank. They are also getting harder to defend against, potentially rendering the main battle tank obsolete. 

Although it’s never a good idea for the defence industry to publicly question the choices - real or potential - of one if its biggest customers, the fact that combat is changing may be contributing to a lack of public response from the military-industrial complex.

There’s no doubt the Challenger 2, which entered service in 1998, is getting long in the tooth but there are no plans for a whole new design to replace it. 

The Challenger 2 has been the mainstay of the British Army for decades

Instead, as its underpinnings remain fundamentally sound, to keep up with rivals and potential enemies it needs a new gun, sights, defences against anti-tank weapons and computer systems so it can link up with other assets on the battlefield. 

Four years ago the Ministry of Defence (MoD) began assessing offers from BAE Systems and Germany’s Rheinmetall  about how the Challenger 2 could be upgraded to keep it in service until 2035. 

However, a decision on whether to go ahead with modernising it - which sources say could cost between £250m and £500m - is not due until next year, and might not come at all.

In reality, the estimated cost of upgrades is not a huge chunk of Britain’s £40bn annual defence budget, especially when it will be spread over many years. 

To put it in context, a single F-35 Joint Strike Fighter goes for about £75m. An Apache attack helicopter - a system easily capable of taking out a dozen tanks from a distance - will set you back about £15m.

For the giant defence companies looking to land bigger and juicier military contracts, fighting to preserve a few hundred heavy tanks isn’t worth dying in a ditch for. 

Industry picking its battles becomes even more sensible when you consider the MoD faces a £15bn funding black hole over the next decade. 

A convoy of Warrior Armoured fighting vehicles in Iraq

That Warrior might suffer the same fate as its bigger brother is more surprising. Military experts delight in pointing out that Warrior is not a “tank”, but an armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) capable of carrying seven troops and equipped with a 30mm cannon. Modified versions serve also serve in a variety of other roles including command and control, directing artillery fire and vehicle recovery. 

Lockheed Martin has embarked on a modernisation programme of Warrior, which came into service in the mid-1980s. Originally priced at £1.3bn but now several hundred million over budget and years late, the upgrade means Warrior is likely to remain a core part of the UK military for years with the MoD probably in too deep to let it go.

Another reason for Warrior to stick around is that troops cannot be expected to walk on to battlefields. General Dynamics is building almost 600 Ajax AFVs that are intended to supplement Warrior and some other vehicles as part of a £3.5bn acquisition, but deliveries are only just starting. 

Unless ground combat forces are going to be hugely reduced in the coming review, the British military is likely to need both Warrior and Ajax for some time.    

Perhaps the most likely outcome is that the Challenger will be replaced by variants of “Boxer”, an eight-wheeled all-terrain armoured vehicle the UK is slated to buy up to 500 of in a programme worth more than £4bn. 

Boxer can be fitted with different modules to suit requirements

Expected to be built by a joint venture between Germany’s Rheinmetall and BAE, the 24-tonne Boxer’s basic chassis can be fitted with modules suited for different roles such as carrying troops, acting as an ambulance or even fitted with a turret-mounted gun of similar power to the one wielded by Challenger.

Boxer can effectively be a tank on wheels - or any of a number of other roles - with speed and manoeuvrability that a tracked vehicle cannot match. The agility provided by its wheels and lower weight gives it agility that is a form of protection against evolving anti-tank weapons.

It also comes with an added bonus of a longer range, something that makes Boxer central to the Army’s new strategy of highly mobile “strike brigades”.

Rather than mourning the death of the main battle tank, perhaps industry is quietly welcoming its passing for the greater business opportunities it presents.